Sunday, 5 June 2016

Believing and Sharing

A Sermon preached at Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church
5th June 2016 11.00am
‘Believing and Sharing’

Acts 2.42-47; 4.32 – 5.11 

Listen to this sermon here:

So, shall we take up the offering now?

Our sermon series at the moment, from the book of Acts,
            invites us to address two themes,
            which are, I suggest, two sides of the same coin.

We’re looking at mission, and we’re looking at money.

Last week Ruth introduced us to the theme of mission,
            and this week I’m picking up where she left off
            and addressing the theme of money.

In many ways, this sermon is also a follow-on
            from one which I gave here at Bloomsbury in April last year.
I’m sure you can all remember it,
            but just in case you can’t, I’ve put a link to it on the order of service
            and you can always refresh your memories by reading the script
                        or listening to it again.

I also want to acknowledge a debt to Stuart Murray Williams,
            who wonderful book ‘Beyond Tithing’
                        has influenced my thinking on giving for many years,
            and I’m shamelessly stealing some of his ideas for this sermon.

I’m sure that none of us can have missed the fact that
            there is a vote on the European Union coming up…
And one of the key arguments, that both sides keep coming back to
            is the way the way in which our country manages our money.

Will we be better off in, or out?
            To which I would want to say, to both sides,
            ‘is that the most important question?’
But, clearly, for many, it is.

Votes have been won or lost on issues of the economy for generations
            and Bill Clinton’s successful campaign
                        for the American Presidency in 1992
            was boosted by their coining of the memorable slogan
                        ‘it’s the economy, stupid!’

And we only have to look to Greece over the last few years
            to see the very real and immediate effects
            of what can happen if a government fails to keep the economy on track.

But given all this, I think that it is very unlikely
            that the outcome of the European Union vote, whichever way it goes,
                        will present us with an economic model
            anywhere near as radical as that which we find
                        operating amongst the early Christians
                        in the days following the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.

Listen again to what they did:

Acts 2.44-45
All who believed were together and had all things in common;
            they would sell their possessions and goods
            and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. 

There have, of course, been attempts by various governments in a variety of countries
            to politically impose an economic model
            which has similarities to this early church practice
And the problem which Communism has hit, time and time again
            is that the sharing and redistribution required
            isn’t, it turns out, something which can simply be imposed.

Well, you’ll be glad to know that I’m not about to spend my time this morning
            espousing the case for Christian Communism.

However, I did think I might treat you to a song sung by Billy Bragg,
            which Tim Jones played to us in Exchange on Wednesday evening
                        as part of our series looking at theology and contemporary music.

The song, called ‘The World Turned Upside Down’
            tells the story of the seventeenth century Diggers,
            who were a group of Protestant radicals,
                        sometimes seen as forerunners of modern anarchism.

They based their beliefs about economic equality on this passage from the book of Acts
            that we have as our reading this morning.

Their most famous moment came in April 1649
            when, in a kind of forerunner to the Occupy movement,
                        a group of them went to St George’s hill in Surrey
                        to plant vegetables in the common land.

Food prices were at an all time high,
            and their intention was to pull down the enclosures
            and put the land to producing food for distribution to all.

The local landowners protested,
            and called in the army to evict the Diggers.

Anyway, here’s the song:

‘The World Turned Upside Down’
Lyrics and tune by Leon Rosselson
Sung by Billy Bragg

In 1649
To St. George's Hill,
A ragged band they called the Diggers
Came to show the people's will
They defied the landlords
They defied the laws
They were the dispossessed reclaiming what was theirs

We come in peace they said
To dig and sow
We come to work the lands in common
And to make the waste ground grow
This earth divided
We will make whole
So it will be
A common treasury for all

The sin of property
We do disdain
No man has any right to buy and sell
The earth for private gain
By theft and murder
They took the land
Now everywhere the walls
Spring up at their command

They make the laws
To chain us well
The clergy dazzle us with heaven
Or they damn us into hell
We will not worship
The God they serve
The God of greed who feeds the rich
While poor folk starve

We work we eat together
We need no swords
We will not bow to the masters
Or pay rent to the lords
Still we are free men
Though we are poor
You Diggers all stand up for glory
Stand up now

From the men of property
The orders came
They sent the hired men and troopers
To wipe out the Diggers' claim
Tear down their cottages
Destroy their corn
They were dispersed
But still the vision lingers on

You poor take courage
You rich take care
This earth was made a common treasury
For everyone to share
All things in common
All people one
We come in peace
The orders came to cut them down

Well, we may not be Diggers,
            but nontheless our passage this week from the book of Acts,
            does raise some very challenging questions for us
            about the way in which we handle our money
                        both as individual disciples of Christ
                        and also collectively as the church of Christ.

And the question I want is to spend some time with this morning
            is what it might mean for us, as followers of Jesus in our day and age,
            to take seriously our discipleship,
                        and our commitment to one another in fellowship
            not just in terms of prayerful support, or spiritual nurture
                        but also in terms of how this plays out practically and financially.

Some of you may know that I have more than a passing interest
                        in the events of the seventeenth century
            and in particular, the origins of the Baptist church,
                        and the story of the Diggers takes us right into the world
                                    of political and economic radicalism
                        that gave birth to the Baptist movement
                                    that we here at Bloomsbury are a part of.

In those days, the church of England had the right
            to levy a 10% tax on every person living in England

Everyone in that time was officially a member of the church of England,
                        whether they wanted to be or not.
            So everyone paid their tithe, or 10%, to the church,
                        whether they wanted to or not
It was an inescapable tax,
            which went to support the existence of the state church.

Well, during the seventeenth century
            some people said that they no longer wanted to worship in their parish church,
            and instead they wanted to become members
                        of, for example, Baptist churches
                        or Quaker churches.

And so the question started to be raised by these dissenters
            as to whether they should pay their tithe
                        to the church or England,
            or whether they were free instead to make their financial gifts to God
                        through the church that they actually attended.

Naturally, the Church of England
            realised that if this was allowed,
                        it’s income could drop dramatically,
            so they resisted any such moves,
                        and it was many years
                        before the compulsory tithe was abolished.

So now come with me for a moment,
            to the seventeenth century,
and hear with me a story about a poor old Quaker
            who worked as a bootmaker.

The local parson came to him and said
            “You have not paid your tithe!”

The Quaker replied
            “No, and I am not going to pay you.
            I do not attend your meeting-house,
                        neither have I any use for your services
            Therefore I will not pay.”

The parson said
            “But it is the law of the land.
            You could attend if you wanted;
                        my door is always open
                        and my services are at your disposal
            Therefore you must pay your tithe”

The next morning the parson was surprised to receive
            a demand for payment for a pair of boots from the Quaker

He hurried to the shop and said
            “There is some mistake here.
            I haven’t ordered any boots.”

The Quaker replied
            “No, I know you haven’t had any boots.
            But my doors are always open
                        my services are at your disposal
            and you could have had a pair of boots
                        if you had wanted them!
            Therefore you must pay me for them.”

And this story raises for us the whole question
            of the basis on which we give money to the church…
Do we do so as a tax? As a compulsory tithe?
            Or do we give voluntarily?

We’ll come back to this question in a few minutes…

But meanwhile, a bit of Greek for you:
            Don’t worry, it’s only one word
            and many of you will have heard it before

The Greek word I want us to think about for a minute
            is the word Koinonia. [1]

Does anybody know what it means?

It’s usually used to describe a quality of fellowship
            or a depth of personal relating
                        within the community of God’s people
But it can have many meanings,
            and can mean fellowship, community
                        communion, intimacy
                        joint participation, or association.

In the New Testament, the word Koinonia
            is used in a couple of ways:
                        Firstly it refers to God’s relationship with us his people
                        and secondly it refers to the relationships we have with one another

These two relationships – us and God, and us with each other
            come together vividly in the communion meal
                        the koinonia meal as it used to be called,
            Where food and drink are shared equally
                        between the poorest and the richest.

In 1 Corinthians 10:16, Paul says:
‘The cup of blessing that we bless,
            is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ?
‘The bread that we break,
            is it not a sharing in the body of Christ?’

and the word translated sharing here is, of course,
            the word koinonia.

And in this Paul is pointing us to the fact
            that the koinonia of the Christian community
            which we celebrate whenever we take communion,
                        as we shall be shortly,
is a koinonia between us and God
            symbolised by the blood
and also a koinonia between one another
            symbolised by the bread

The important thing to grasp here
            is that koinonia, or fellowship, goes two ways
                        it goes vertically, between us and God
                        and it goes horizontally, between one another

Koinonia is a concept which is very useful
            in countering the modern mindset of individualism
Because it reminds us that our relationships with one another are vital,
            and that an outlook on life
                        which is focussed on “me” alone
            is very far removed from the way God would have us be.

But Koinonia also has another meaning,
            and in the ancient world it also functioned as an economic term.
For example, it was often used to refer to business partnerships that existed
            in the Roman and Greek world
            that the early Christians inhabited.

This economic meaning of koinonia
            referred to donations made by donors,
            and also to the taking up of a financial collection.

And there is a similarity here with the meaning we are more familiar with.
            Koinonia, whether in its economic meaning, or its fellowship meaning,
            always points us to our responsibilities to one another.

            We have a responsibility to one another
                        in terms of our fellowship relationships
            and we also have a responsibility to one another
                        in terms of our financial activities

Paul himself, in the New Testament, uses the word Koinonia
            to refer to financial contributions (Rom 15:26; 2 Cor 8:4).

And in the early churches, the koinonia was the common fund
            out of which the deacons administered the care for the poor

The koinonia was also the box, into which the gifts
            were placed in church: a kind of first century “offering plate”

So the word koinonia concerned
            not just “fellowship” and “mutual commitment”
but also a sharing of resources,
            a responsibility for the needs of others in the church,
            and the distribution of wealth.

And this understanding of Koinonia
            invites us to see the church
            almost as a kind of business association,
                        where each member is a partner.

The church, by this understanding, is a voluntary association,
            to which no-one should ever be forced to belong
            like they were in England until 300 years ago.

However, once people have agreed to join,
            the implication of koinonia is that
                        their membership of the church carries certain responsibilities,
            both in terms of fellowship commitment
                        and also in terms of financial accountability.

This term koinonia crops up several times
            in the passage we’re looking at this morning.

Take a look at Acts 2 verse 42:

They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship (koinonia),
            to the breaking of bread and to prayer.

And then, just in case we don’t get the point
            Luke spells it out again in verses 44 & 45

Acts 2:44-45
All the believers were together and had everything in common (koinonia).
            Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to everyone who had need.

This phrase “everything in common”
            has sometimes been interpreted as meaning that
            personal ownership of property
                        was abolished in the Jerusalem church.

Many Christian groups over the years have, on the basis of this passage,
            advocated the practice of a “community of goods”,
            or the formation of “common purse” communities.

But that isn’t actually what Luke was talking about,
            so don’t start to get worried
            that I’m going to be asking you all
                        to hand over the deeds to your houses!

What Luke is describing here,
            is a voluntary process of redistribution
            from those who had much, to those who had little.

We get some further examples of this practice in action
            if we read a little bit further on in the book of Acts:

So for example in chapter 4 verses 32-37
            we meet Barnabas who sold a field
                        and brought the money to the church for distribution.
And the important thing to notice
            is that we aren’t told that he sold all his possessions.
He was generous, but not to the point of impoverishing himself.

And we find something similar in the rather terrifying story
            of Ananias and Sapphira in the next chapter:

Interestingly, this unfortunate couple are NOT condemned for their failure
            to give over all their personal property.
Rather, Peter explicitly recognised that this was theirs
            to do with as they wished.
What got them into trouble was their dishonesty,
            and their attempt to deceive the fellowship.

The expression of koinonia in the early Christian community
            clearly left individuals free to retain or give away their property.

But it also called for a new understanding
            of economic responsibility of believers for one another.

This takes a bit of thinking about…
            But what was actually going on here
                        was that the Spirit-filled believers
                        in the days following Pentecost
            were so aware of their fellowship with God
                        and their fellowship with one another
            that they were accountable to one another before God
                        in their money and their possessions

Individuals still possessed things;
            they still owned houses, and fields, and so on.
But the difference was
            that what they did with what they owned
            was decided not by the individual
                        but by the community.

As Luke says in Acts 4.32
            “no-one claimed that any of their possessions was their own”

The great sin of Ananias and Sapphira
            wasn’t that they kept property for themselves,
            but that they dishonoured the koinonia relationship
                        between them and the other Christians
                        and between them and God.
As Peter says, in 5.4
            “You did not lie to us, but to God!”

And in this, we come to the heart of the matter…
            because it brings it right back down
            to the issue of discipleship.

You see, Christianity isn’t about a list of rules
            that have to be obeyed to be a proper Christian.

There is no set percentage
            which will tell us that when we have given that amount
            then God will be pleased with our giving
                        and that what is left is ours to do with as we please.

It doesn’t work like that,
            in the community of Spirit-filled post-Pentecost believers.

Rather, what it comes down to,
            is where our hearts are before God…

But ironically, one of the tests of where our hearts are with God,
            is the test of how we behave
            with regards to our money and our possessions.

When God placed his Holy Spirit within us
            and formed a koinonia relationship with us
                        through his son Jesus Christ,
he also placed us within the community of his people,
            that is, the body of Christ, the church,
and he called us into a koinonia relationship with one another

And the biblical testimony
            is that we cannot have one without the other.

The implications of the story of Ananias and Sapphira
            are that it simply doesn’t work
                        to try and cheat the body of Christ,
            because all we end up doing is cheating God
                        and that, as they say, is a recipe for disaster!

We are either in this
            or we aren’t.
We are either disciples of the living God
            or we aren’t.

And if we are, if we have a koinonia relationship with God,
            then we have to get to grips with what it means
                        to have a koinonia relationship with one another.

And if we diminish this relationship with each other,
            then we are, by implication
            diminishing our relationship with God.

This reflection on the meaning of koinonia as fellowship
            not just in terms of spiritual support,
            but also in terms of financial accountability,
brings home to us the difficulty we all face
            in terms of trusting one another,
            and in terms of trusting God.

We like to say we trust in God.
            But when it comes down to it,
            are we actually prepared to do it?
Are we actually prepared to trust God with our finances?
            Or are we going to seek to retain
            some measure of control over them?

I think that this has some serious implications for us
            when we consider our giving to the church,
because I sometimes think
            that we don’t realise the seriousness
            of what we are doing
                        when we give our money to God.

Some plain facts need to be said here
            because we need to try and get our heads around this one.

·        The church is not an institution which needs our support.

·        The church is not a club to which we subscribe.

·        The church is not a building which needs maintenance.

·        The church is not an employer with salaries to pay.

·        The church is not an organisation for channelling our charitable giving.

The church is the body of Christ’s people,
            with whom we are called under God
            to have a koinonia fellowship relationship.

The church is the group of Christ’s people,
            called together by God,
to be accountable to one another in all things,
                        including our money and possessions.

And this is not an optional extra to our faith;
            we cannot kid ourselves that all is right with God
            if we retain control over our finances
                        and in so doing diminish the koinonia relationship
                        into which we have been called.

Which is all very challenging stuff, is it not?

But what does it mean in practice?

Well, I don’t claim to have all the answers to this one
            but I would like to put forward a few suggestions
            as to how we can start to live some of this out
                        in our lives as Spirit-filled post-Pentecost believers.

Firstly, we can consider the issue of our giving.

            How much is it right to give to God?

            How much is God asking us to give to him?

Believe it or not, my concern here isn’t for the future of our church financially
            it’s rather for the future of our church spiritually!

If what we have been looking at in Acts is right,
            and how we handle our money before God
            is an indication of our relationship with God,
then it may be that some of us are skating on uncomfortably thin ice.

This isn’t an issue of money
            this is an issue of discipleship!

So in the name of Jesus Christ,
            who has called us into a koinonia relationship with him
            I would like to challenge us all
                        to think again and to think seriously
                        about how much of our money we are going to give to God.

Aha! I can hear some of you saying
            I do give to God
            I just don’t give to the church…

Well, if that is you, then I would want to ask you a question…

What makes you think that you are qualified
            to tell God what to do with his money?

Because when we direct our primary giving to specific organisations of our choosing,
            what we are actually doing
            is retaining our control
                        over the money we are seeking to give to God.

The post-Pentecost Spirit-filled believers in Acts
            were accountable to one another
            in what they would do with their money.

And as post-Pentecost Spirit-filled believers ourselves
            surely we are called to do the same?

As I said earlier
            giving to the church is not giving to support an institution.

Rather, it is submitting to our brothers and sisters in Christ
            in the use of our money and our possessions.
And it is continuing to give and submit
            even when the community takes decisions we disagree with.

As a church, we decide together under Christ
            what we will spend God’s money on.
We decide together under Christ
            where the resources of the people of God will be used.

And these decisions are taken in koinonia, in community
            they are fellowship decisions.
They are the decisions we take at our church meetings,
            and they encompass everything from our commitment
                        to keeping this building open as a Baptist mission to central London,
            to paying the staff and ministers who serve the cause of Christ through this place.

And if we withdraw that decision from the community,
            and direct our giving to God ourselves,
we withdraw from the koinonia relationship
            into which we have been called.

I’m not saying that we shouldn’t support other charities
            and other organisations beyond those
            which are supported through the church community.
But I do think such giving should be additional
            to the regular and systematic giving to God
            directed through the people of God
                        to which we have been called.

So in the name of Jesus Christ,
            who has called us into a koinonia relationship with one another,
            I want to challenge us all
                        to think again, and to think seriously
                        about how accountable
                                    we are prepared to be to one another
                                    in our giving to God.

So, as church members will know,
            our treasurer has challenged us all to look again at our giving.

Unless giving increases, we simply will not be able
            to carry on doing the things here at Bloomsbury
            that we have discerned together we are called to do.

Unless giving increases,
            we will have to make cuts to our mission and ministry.

So, to return to tithing for a moment.
            Whilst I would never, ever, say that it is compulsory;
            try a little experiment with me.

Think of your monthly income, and divide it by ten.
            Then see if your giving is above or below that amount.

For those here who live on the breadline, living in or on the edge of poverty,
            clearly you should be giving less than a tenth.
In fact, perhaps the rest of us should be giving to help you!
            Which, of course, is what we do, through our hardship fund,
            administered by the ministers to help those in need.

But for the rest of us, my suspicion is that 10% should be starting point
            for our giving to the church.
Indeed, there will be some among us for whom the appropriate amount to give
            will be far in excess of 10% of income.
And hear this: without the generous, faithful, and sacrificial giving
            of us all to the work here at Bloomsbury,
we simply cannot keep doing it.

Did you know that, as a church,
            we give away 10% of all our income?
            We support a variety of causes,
                        including the Baptist Union’s Home Mission Fund,
                        and the Baptist Missionary Society,
                        and the various Baptist Colleges in the UK and in Amsterdam.
            And this is before we start giving our charity of the year,
                        or the various other gifts we make as a fellowship.
So there’s a good precedent for using this as a rule of thumb.

I guess what I have been trying to say
            about our attitudes towards our giving,
can be summed up
            by asking whether we are prepared to trust God,
            and whether we are prepared to trust one another.

And this is a difficult thing to do,
            make no mistake about it;
            but it is also the test of our fellowship, our koinonia.

When the Spirit came on the church at Pentecost
            and created this new community of believers,
the call of God was on them
            to do and be something profoundly different
            from the way of the world.

The call was on them to see the world turned upside down.

From the world’s perspective
            trusting God and trusting one another with our money
            is the stupidest thing to do;
because from the world’s perspective,
            we must look first to me and mine.

But God calls us to do things differently,
            and to model in our lives
            our allegiance to a saviour who came
                        to overturn the world,
            and to bring a new and radical way of living
                        to those who followed him.

And the power to do this,
            the power to live differently,
            comes from the Spirit of Pentecost.

It is the Holy Spirit, at work in us,
            who transforms us, as he transformed those first believers.

It is the Holy Spirit who calls us
            to a life of radical discipleship.

It is the Holy Spirit who calls us
            into a koinonia relationship with God
            and into a koinonia relationship with one another

And it is the Holy Spirit who empowers us
            to live lives transformed from the world’s priorities,
            and rather to live in line with the radical priorities of the kingdom of God.

[1] What follows draws heavily on Stuart Murray Williams’ book ‘Beyond Tithing’ pp. 205ff

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